Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Anne Garrels is a journalist and commentator for National Public Radio who has covered Russia for years. She wanted to examine the remarkable changes in that country since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but she felt it would be more informative to see the changes in the lives of “ordinary Russians,” away from the capital city of Moscow. She chose Chelyabinsk, formerly a military-industrial center a thousand miles east of Moscow at the southern edge of the Ural Mountains. The remote region of Chelyabinsk is known for being “one of the most polluted places on the planet.”
Chelyabinsk had been badly treated under the Soviet regime. It was a center of nuclear power research, and the Soviets were inclined to sacrifice safety in the interest of rapid progress. A number of accidents occurred, and there were hundreds of incidents of radiation sickness. Few if any of these events were admitted at the time by the government or reported in the news. (Horrifying accounts are now available; you can read about them here.) Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the successor state has made progress in cleaning up the environment, but is still very secretive about any problems that occurred in the past or that continue to exist.
In addition to the environmental problems, the economy of Chelyabinsk is now suffering as well. As Garrels observes, the Russian economy boomed overall when oil prices were high, and many fortunes were made by a new class of “oligarchs.” Moscow, the capital, has become vibrant and prosperous. But Garrels reports that things are not so rosy in the hinterlands, where austerity has resulted from the lowering of oil prices.
Money is still being spent in some sectors. The Russian state allows freedom of religion, actively favoring the Russian Orthodox Church. In Chelyabinsk just as in the big cities, many of the Church’s splendidly ornate cathedrals and monasteries have been restored to their original brilliance, once again supplying the “opiate of the masses” scorned by Karl Marx.
Garrels sees Russia as going through something of an identity crisis. The gene pool was severely depleted by the horrors of World War II and Stalin’s purges. Women still outnumber men by a significant margin. The Russian military complains that it has difficulty finding suitable recruits. Alcoholism and drug addiction are quite prevalent among Russian males.
Nevertheless, most Russians, she avers, are happy with or at least satisfied with the job Vladimir Putin has done. His approval rating is in the mid 80% range! This high rating results in part because most Russians strongly disapproved of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, of whom Garrels says, he “and the ‘liberals’ who took the reins of government in Russia [from the Soviets] were unable to resist the lure of getting rich quickly by corrupt methods.” Moreover, under Yeltsin, criminal gangs often used violence to achieve their goals. Corruption under Putin remains rampant, but at least order has been restored, and the economy is vastly better than it was before, even with setbacks from lower oil prices.
Garrels found some Russians who strongly disapproved of Putin. There are civil and human rights advocates who feel constrained by a strong atmosphere of state-sponsored censorship and the self-censorship that inevitably follows. Garrels says there is an “unbridgeable gap” between Putin’s supporters and Russians who think country is on wrong track — much like the current situation in the USA. It should also be noted, however, that Russians in general are not as wedded to the ideal of “individual liberties” (versus policies reflecting the good of the collective) as we are in the West.
In addition, most Russians are dependent on state-sponsored news media, where Putin has been able to shift the blame for many of Russia’s problems to the West, at least in the eyes of his enthusiasts. Russians also resent the fact that the West seems unaware of the sacrifice they made in WWII, having sustained 95% of the military casualties inflicted on the three major Allied powers (the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R.) To ask Americans, you’d think they won the war practically single-handedly.
In any event, the improvements in Russia since the Soviet government and since the tenure of Yeltsin are striking. It is not unreasonable for Russians to felt grateful to Putin for all the advances of the country generally and in their own economic situations in particular.
Garrels tells the story of Chelyabinsk in a series of chapters that read like features on NPR. They are full of interesting revelations, such as in the one titled “The Forensic Expert” about Alexander Vlasov, the region’s deputy forensic pathologist, who worked on excavating a mass grave from Soviet times.
My wife and I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg, and found them delightful. But obviously what one sees as a tourist, and in only the big cities, does not reveal much about life away from big urban centers. Garrels’s book provides an interesting counterpoint.
Evaluation: These snapshots of a Russia away from the big cosmopolitan areas of Russia are entertaining and shed light on a lesser-known region of that country.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016